Thursday, 28 January 2010

Tony Blair the scapegoat

The UK has been in frenetic anticipation this week of Tony Blair’s testimony Friday in front of the Iraq War show trial, er I mean, inquiry. The British media has been baying for a dramatic crescendo to the three week grilling of former cabinet officials who were involved in the decision to join the war. So far it's failed to deliver the “smoking gun” of conspiracy they’ve wanted. My inbox this week has been flooded with emails from activists and NGOs demanding this or that question be asked of Blair. Anticipation is so high that Channel 4 News actually spent 15 minutes last night doing a staged enactment of how the proceeding might go on Friday.

But despite the high theatre, the inquiry has failed to reveal anything too interesting. Given that the panel has focused so relentlessly on the accomplice rather than the perpetrator of the Iraq War, one could have expected similar results from an inquest of Austrian officials after World War II to “unearth the truth” about the invasion of Poland.

Monday, 25 January 2010

How individualism shapes the US healthcare debate

Of all the activities I expected to be engaged in Saturday night, finding myself at a bar in Switzerland vociferously defending the right to name a child Adolf Hitler was not one of them. But as it happens, this curious discussion about European naming regulations gave way to a very interesting conversation about the healthcare hullabaloo in the US – a debate that has perplexed Europeans over the past eight months.

The two very different attitudes in the conversation about whether the government should get involved in the naming of a baby was symptomatic of a larger divide between the Anglo-Saxon English-speaking world and continental Europe. Being reminded of this vast difference helped me to put into perspective Americans’ huge resistance to increasing healthcare coverage.

Talking about the US, a German friend of mine who lives in Zurich said he thinks it's strange how Americans give their children crazy names like Apple Blossom or Stapler, and such a thing would never happen in Germany. Of course the most extreme example of a bizarre name, widely reported in Germany, was the case of the neo-Nazi man in Pennsylvania who complained when a local supermarket refused to write his son’s legal name (Adolf Hitler) on a birthday cake. In Germany, where it is illegal to use any of the imagery of the Nazi party, people couldn’t believe that the government would allow someone to give their child such a name in the first place.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

When 40 is more than 60: Why Republicans always win

In the wake of Tuesday’s game-changing Republican victory in Massachusetts I’ve been inundated by questions from perplexed Europeans. How is it, they ask incredulously, that one year after Barack Obama came into office on a wave of popular euphoria, he has somehow come to attract the rage of the very Americans he’s been trying to help?

The answer lies in this not-often-observed reality: despite the fact that voters banished Republicans from the leadership of every branch of government in the 2006 and 2008 elections, since Obama's inaugeration they have been able to wage one of the most effective oppositions in American history. Though the Grand Old Party is in the midst of a leadership vacuum and is no longer coming up with any actual policy ideas, they've somehow managed to stymie the Obama agenda to such a degree that in practice they are effectively a co-equal power in government. You’ve got to hand it to them, it’s truly a remarkable feat. They’ve managed to get the American public demanding a return to the party of George W. Bush.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Today's election could doom Obama presidency

Without hyperbole, one can say that today’s special election in Massachusetts is the most important poll of Barack Obama’s first term. Stunned into action, Democrats are madly criss-crossing the state to prevent a shocking political defeat that could not only kill the healthcare bill, but could also doom prospects for passing climate change legislation and financial reform. In other words, the result of today’s election could deal the new president such a grievous injury that he will be unable to recover and spend the next three years in lame duck status.

Exaggeration? Not really. The special election is to fill the senate seat held for 40 years by the legendary Democrat Ted Kennedy, who died last year. Massachusetts (often derided as “Taxachusetts” by the right) is without a doubt the most liberal state in America, and it is almost entirely dominated by Democrats. The entire congressional delegation (both senators and all ten representatives) are Democrats. In the Massachusett’s 200-person state legislature, only 21 representatives are Republicans.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Who wants an EU Grammy?

I’ve just been alerted via a press release to the existence of something called the “European Border Breaker Awards”, which is apparently an award show put on by the European Commission for European music acts that “cross borders”. It’s an interesting idea but taking a look at it , I think the way its structured is kind of silly. It seems to ignore a fairly obvious fact – if they were being honest about the awards, almost all of them would go to British acts.

Apparently this award show has been going since 2004, and previous winners include France’s Carla Bruni, Germany’s Tokio Hotel, Italy’s Tiziano Ferro and Benito Benasi, Sweden’s Basshunter and Britain’s The Ting Tings. This year’s awards took place last night in the Netherlands, hosted by the BBC’s Jools Holland.

Intrigued by the concept, I did a little basic esearch and found that the objective of the awards, sponsored by the Commission and the European Broadcasting Union, is to “highlight the success of 10 debuting European artists in selling albums and touring outside their home territory” to “stimulate the cross-border circulation of artists' works”.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

London plans ‘USA Day'?? I'm out of here!

Well it’s been up in the air for awhile now but today it became official: my company is moving me to Brussels. I will be heading over there 1 March.

In the past year of doing this job covering the EU I’ve been living in London (where the company is based) and just going into Brussels when required. But someone in our Brussels office is leaving, so I need to be over there full-time now. I’m looking forward to it actually. Covering the EU from London has been a bit like trying to cover the US Congress from New York. You can do it (people do) but you can’t do it very well. Sure, you can hop on a Eurostar or Amtrak train to attend the key hearings, press conferences and events. But if you’re not immersed in the EU or DC bubble, you’re just not fully connected

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

You’ve come a long way, baby

Over the years, Americans have gotten used to bible-beating politicians eventually being exposed as adulterers, prostitute-visitors or gay toilet sexers. It’s become such a regular occurrence that people hardly bat an eyelash anymore when they see a conservative politician go from blasting gays by day to schtupping prostitutes by night. But in Northern Ireland this week the usual ‘moralising politician exposed for moral failings’ storyline has been given a new twist. This time, the offending politician is a lady!

As far as I know this is the first time a prominent anti-gay female politician has been caught having an extra-marital affair. It's a proud day for feminism when women can stand toe-to-toe with men in the field of hypocritical bigotry.

Iris Robinson, a rabidly homophobic and self-described “born-again Christian” Protestant Unionist MP, has been caught in an extramarital affair with a 19-year-old boy.This has been big news in the UK, but not because of the affair. In fact, the charge of hypocricy is perhaps the least consequential aspect of the scandal unfolding in Northern Ireland right now. The affair has kicked off a series of events that have been turning quite serious, and could lead to a collapse of the uneasy peace that has existed in NI for over a decade. The sexual indiscretions of the UK's Anita Bryant may not have just been hypocritical, they could have set off a chain reaction that could lead to a return of the violence that plagued the 1990’s.

Fiesty exchange over Bulgarian nominee

The European Parliament is holding confirmation hearings for the new EU commissioners this week, and by far the most dramatic one yet has been that of Bulgaria’s nominee Rumiana Jeleva, who is being accused of having ties to the Russian mafia. Yesterday’s chaotic hearing reflected the EU’s continuing problem of how to deal with Bulgaria’s corruption, which is so widespread in their political class one isn’t sure who to believe in the dispute over Jeleva’s past.

Accusations were flying back and forth in the hearing yesterday, with Jeleva being called a liar by a rival Bulgarian MEP and Jeleva in turn demanding that an MEP come to Bulgaria to see for himself that she has no ties to the mob. Then each opposing side began furiously handing out paperwork to prove their case, a violation of parliamentary rules. When authorities tried to confiscate the hand-outs, MEPs refused to hand them back. Soon there were calls for the whole hearing to break because of the discord. In the end, the panel could not confirm her and had to put off the confirmation until 24 January.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Was swine flu a hoax?

European health ministers are set to hold an emergency inquiry into whether pharmaceutical companies influenced government decisions to purchase vast stockpiles of unnecessary swine flu vaccines. The inquiry comes as European governments have announced they are being forced to sell the millions of excess doses they ordered from the companies during the height of the Swine Flu Panic.

This week Gerrmany, France and the Netherlands announced they would sell the excess H1N1 drug supplies they purchased. The revelations about how much those governments spent on the vaccine has caused a public outcry, particularly in France. The country had placed orders to spend €869 million on 94 million vaccine doses, even though the population of France is 65 million. Only 5 million French people have been vaccinated. On Monday the country announced it wanted to cancel 50 million of those orders. The UK is also in talks to cancel orders for an estimated 20 million doses of vaccine, though the government won’t reveal the total size of what it ordered.

Friday, 8 January 2010

'Racist' KFC ad: The perils of globalisation

An internet uproar has exploded over the past few days over a purportedly racist KFC ad airing in Australia. The controversy grew so loud that KFC today decided to pull the ad - not because it was causing any offense in Australia, but because Americans watching it on YouTube were offended.

You couldn't pick a more perfect illustration of this crazy globalized internet age we live in. The ad was aired by KFC Australia as part of its "cricket survival guide" series in the run-up to a big match between the Australian and West Indian cricket teams. The ad features a white Australian sitting in a crowd of unruly black Carribean cricket fans. "Need a tip when you're stuck in an awkward situation?" he asks the camera. He then shares a bucket of fried chicken with the unruly crowd. They devour it, bringing them under control. "Too easy," he says.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Iceland to vote on becoming pariah state

After seeing his house surrounded by a torch-wielding mob, Iceland’s president yesterday stunned the world by vetoing a parliament bill committing the country to paying back the €3.8 billion of British and Dutch citizens’ money it lost. The bold move triggered a shock wave of recrimination across the world: the country’s debt was instantly downgraded to junk status, the IMF hinted it may withhold the $2.1 billion it loaned the country in November and the UK threatened to veto Iceland’s bid to join the EU.

So now who’s going to make the incredibly difficult and complicated decision on whether or not to pay back the ‘other people’s money’ Iceland lost? Joe Q. Public, that’s who. The issue will now go to a public referendum on 20 February.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Mr Bean – EU President

Today the euroblogosphere was receiving more attention than it’s used to, thanks to a surprising visit from Mr. Bean on the EU presidency’s web site. But now it’s turned into a war of words between bloggers – who insist they saw the image – and Spain – which insists no such image ever appeared.

I myself didn’t become aware of the story until late this afternoon, after an entire day of being frustrated by attempts to open the Spanish EU presidency’s web site and having them time out. Spain took over the rotating EU presidency from Sweden on 1 January*, and I had to write a story about their platform but couldn’t access their documents. As soon as I opened my twitter account I could see why. Everyone in Brussels was tweeting about ‘Beangate’, commenting both on the hack itself and the enormous amount of media attention it was receiving.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Nudie Pics at the Airport?

I’ve just touched down in London after a whirlwind tour through the US, and I think I’ll be happy to not see another plane again for a long while. Flying back from Chicago to London I could already see the effects of the attempted Christmas terrorist bombing – what looked like full cavity searches for every person coming into the US. And from what I read this morning it sounds like we’ll all be shooting naked videos of ourselves at Heathrow within a few weeks time. Welcome to the new age of air travel.

I flew Air Canada back and forth to the US, despite major misgivings given their abysmal reputation for delays. My initial reluctance proved well founded. Out of four flight legs each was delayed by at least two hours. I say this after every time I fly them but this time I mean it – never again!

As I was transferring through the airport in Montreal I could see down through the glass wall into the entranceway for people transferring to flights to the US – and it was a madhouse. There was a massive hall of pat-down stations. Every single person flying to the US is now getting a full body search, and there was a queue stretching back for what seemed like miles as each person entered this massive hall to be individually meticulously searched. Lucky for me, those flying away from the US didn’t have to do that (though I’m not sure I understand the logic there…)